MIDDLEBURY — In its home opener on Tuesday, the Middlebury College women’s basketball team shrugged off both a series of injuries and visiting Norwich in earning a convincing, 72-44 win.
The 3-4 Panthers harassed the 4-3 Cadets into missing 14 of their first 15 shots and took a 23-2 lead with 10:25 gone. Eight Panthers scored in that stretch.
Then, after the Cadets sank four three-pointers to get within 15 at 34-19, the Panthers scored the final six points of the first half to lead at the break by 21.
And then they dashed any hopes of a Norwich comeback by opening the second half with a 12-2 run to push the lead to 52-21. The remaining 15:11 was played because the rules insist on 40 minutes.
Panther junior guard Scarlett Kirk helped spark both of those runs, scoring two fast-break hoops late in the first half, one coming on one of point guard Laura Lowry’s game-high five assists, and then six more points in the 12-2 second-half surge.
Kirk finished with 21 points, and her 10 rebounds helped the Panthers to a 58-32 advantage on the boards. Junior guard/forward Katie Pett led the Panthers with 13 rebounds and three steals, and she and Kirk combined to hound Cadet leading scorer Aliah Curry into a five-for-24 shooting performance.
Panther senior leading scorer Tracy Borsinger, a forward, added 10 boards to go along with 15 points, four assists and two blocked shots.
The Panthers were playing the first of three games this week, and will host Johnson State on Thursday at 5 p.m. and Skidmore on Saturday at 2 p.m. Coach Noreen Pecsok said she told the Panthers their efforts in these games, the last before their holiday break, would be pivotal.
Afterward, Pecsok was happy with their response against a Cadet team that entered with a size advantage and a winning record.
“I just said to them before the game, this is going to define us,” Pecsok said. “And I thought they were fantastic. They played really, really hard. We were patching people in different places, and the great news for us is we can definitely get a lot better, but we just played so hard. We just competed on every play … We just never took our foot off the gas. And that was incredibly encouraging for me to see, especially since three, now four kids are out.”
And that’s the downside. The Panthers entered the game with second-leading scorer Sarah Marcus, a junior guard, wearing a boot on an injured ankle suffered three games ago. Sophomore local product Katie Ritter — who had started all six games and was third on the team in scoring, tied for second in assists, and fourth in rebounding — sat with a sore knee, and sophomore forward Alexis Coolidge also sat out.
The good news is all three should return no later than January. But during the game talented sophomore point guard Nora Kelly, a key contributor off the bench so far, suffered an apparently serious knee injury, falling untouched while bringing the ball up.
The injury cast a pall over the proceedings, and a saddened Pecsok said Kelly, who also hurt her knee a year ago, is not expected to return to the court this season.
Pecsok remains hopeful about her team’s prospects moving forward, however, citing Tuesday’s game as evidence that the Panthers have the players to overcome adversity.
“Our depth is pretty good, luckily,” Pecsok said. “If we’re running on all cylinders, you know me, I’m always optimistic.”
Certainly, the Panthers showed plenty of balance and unselfishness on Tuesday. As well as the success on the boards, they recorded 21 assists on 29 baskets, with seven players having at least two apiece: In addition to Lowry and Borsinger’s totals, Pett and Kelly contributed three each, and Kirk, junior guard Kristina Conroy and senior forward Jesse Miller picked up two each.
“We moved the ball, everybody got in rhythm, and that helped,” Pecsok said. “It was a very big piece for us … They know that’s a priority for us.”
The ball movement produced scoring balance as seven players scored at least five points: In addition to Kirk and Borsinger’s totals, Lowry had nine; Kelly, sophomore forward Rachel Crews and Miller; six apiece; and Pett, five.
Curry led Norwich with 14, and Abigail Wright scored eight. Kelsey Lotti and Kristine Brammer each hauled in five rebounds to lead the Cadets in that department. Freshman forward Hannah Curler, a Vergennes Union High School graduate, logged six minutes for Norwich.
On Saturday, Pecsok said the Panthers competed well in 62-50 loss at nationally ranked Emmanuel. Emmanuel, No. 16 in NCAA Division III, took an early 22-10 lead, but a 13-2 Panther run got them back in the game, and they trailed by just 30-25 at the half.
Emmanuel stretched the lead to 11 quickly after the break, and despite a Panther surge that cut the lead to 45-39 with about 12 minutes to go, the hosts were never in trouble. Borsinger (13 points), Lowry (nine), Kelly (eight) and Pett (10 points and two steals) led Middlebury.
Moving forward, Pecsok wants more of what she saw vs. the Cadets.
“Hopefully that’s our M.O., to compete on every possession and play defense like that,” she said.
And she believes the convincing win by her shorthanded Panthers will give them a lift.
“I think it’s so important for our confidence,” Pecsok said. “It’s great momentum for them this week.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.